Webchat with local government and housing minister Grant Shapps
Local government and housing minister Grant Shapps joined us for a live webchat in December. He took on your most probing questions about his pre-election promises, housing benefit cuts and social housing, as well as how to balance being a councillor with family life, and what to do if you're interesting in becoming a councillor yourself.
Grant is the MP for Welwyn Hatfield, he's married with three children - a boy aged nine and six-year-old twins.
Grant: I know that quite a few of you have joined the chat but based on questions in advance I know the first question is where on earth would I think you'd get the time to become a councillor. As a Dad of three I know that life can be really busy, but what people don't realise is that councillors can do their work on quite a flexible basis. And even if that's not always the case now, it's the situation we'd like to see in the future.
Lankyalto: I'm not a local councillor and have no wish to become one. My family has provided a number of councillors, mayors, etc, and I have seen firsthand how much work is required. Much of this is in the evenings, at least in my experience. That won't suit everyone, but I don't think there is an ideal solution.
What kind of power are we talking about? Because local people can get a bit power crazy and hung up on issues. There are usually only a few people who might be given responsibility for things they don't really understand and aren't really qualified for.
I would like there to be a lot less emphasis on party politics and more on getting the best out of people, regardless of the party they support. Local government would be a good place to start, then hopefully we could work up to national level and get rid of all that pitifully childish baying that goes on in the House of Commons.
Grant: There are expectations of a councillor; you may need to meet council staff and you'll need to be able to communicate effectively with your local residents. But don't forget you've got an entire council there to support you; that is what council officers do.
As for party politics, they are part of how democracy works in Britain. There are plenty of independent councillors, but as in politics, just as in real life, people tend to get more done in a group. But there's nothing to say that members of different political natures can't work together to make things better at a local level. We have a coalition Government - that proves it is possible to achieve this at a national level.
stretch: I would like to become a councillor. Unfortunately, I have four children and childcare would be an issue. Also I live in a Housing Authority house, so not sure I'm the 'sort' of person they would like.
Grant: That is exactly why I came on here. I am interested in why you think someone in a Housing Authority house couldn't be a councillor? Although I understand why you might be busy, from that brief description I would say you sound like ideal councillor material. Somebody like yourself might have experience of health care, of childcare, of education and of the facilities available to children, play areas and green spaces to say the least, right down to the detail of street clutter blocking a buggy. Then there's personal experience of living in social housing - that sort of firsthand experience is invaluable. In terms of childcare, allowances for carers are available when councillors attend meetings.
mellicauli: No one seems to be interested in councillors I note. Given that, why do you think giving them more power is a good idea? What powers are being so wrongly exercised at the moment that need to be devolved? And what mandate do you have for doing it?
Or would you just like to foist off a lot of unpopular decisions on a load of mug Mums so you don't have to take the flack for it anymore? I can tell you why Mums aren't interested in being councillors. This is because it is a poorly paid job with unsociable hours for little or no thanks. Most Mums already have a job that meets just this description.
Grant: It's not bad; but it could be better. That's why we want to remove interference and red tape from Whitehall so that councils can get on with the job of deciding for themselves what their electorates need. We have talented councillors but we need more, we need people who are representative of their community. Imagine seeing an issue in your neighbourhood and instead of just being in a position to complain about it, being in a position to pick up the phone and do something about it.
In terms of poor pay - it's important to remember that being a councillor is not a job, it's a vocation. There's no salary, but there are allowances to compensate people for their time. If you saw my mailbag, you'd know that many people are amazed that councillors get paid at all, and think those that do get paid too much. While the levels of allowances should be realistic, we also acknowledge that councillors can't be expected to work for nothing. That work is valued.
mrsden: Why would anyone want to be a councillor when your Government is determined to push tough decisions onto Councils so that you can turn around and say "it wasn't our decision, talk to your Councillor,"? Eric Pickles talks down Councils all the time. Only this weekend he was moaning about how much Chief Executives get paid. Being a councillor or working for a council is a thankless task and is only set to become harder now that your Government is slashing budgets and at the same time expecting councils to do more and more. Do you really think that hard working, talented people want to take the blame for your spending cuts?
Grant: It's definitely true that councils will have to face their share of the deficit reduction. Let's not forget that you only have to look across the Irish Sea to understand what happens if you don't get the deficit under control. So, yes councils will need to take their share.
However, in addition to budgets being lower, we are un-ringfencing lots of spending meaning that local councillors will be in a far better position to decide how the money is spent. This extra flexibility will make the job of councillors a little bit easier. You ask why we keep pointing out that some Chief Execs are earning more than the PM and the answer is that this demonstrates that some Authorities haven't worked out that they need to take care of their backend spending - like on these top salaries - rather than cut front line services.
Worcswoman: I've no objection to becoming a councillor but I wouldn't know how.
Grant: The To Be A Councillor website will give you all the info you need about where to start.
NotAnotherNewNappy: Before the election, your manifesto and white paper on housing promised to increase social mobility by giving social housing tenants more of a stake in their homes, i.e. by rewarding good tenants with a 10% share and creating more opportunities to buy the home they currently live in. However, since you came to power, all the proposals you've made have been about decreasing a tenant's rights, like by creating short term contracts and removing the right to an assured tenancy. This makes sure social housing tenants have far less of a 'stake' and making estates more transient and less socially mixed places to live. How do you justify this?
Is this a good example of the coalition government's commitment to the see new verb 'to Clegg' entered into the Oxford English Dictionary?
Grant: Perhaps what you've read about our proposals doesn't give the full picture. For example, when it comes to tenants' rights we are providing huge new powers to tenants by scrapping the Tenants Services Authority and instead putting tenants in charge of calling their landlord to account. These are real powers, not operated by some distant quango, but used by local tenants through their tenants' panels and councillors.
superv1xen: Can you PROMISE existing council/housing association tenants that the proposed changes to local authority tenants will NOT affect us? What can we expect the household income before families are kicked out told to find a private rented property is going to be set at? Are you going to do anything to help mere mortals on, or just above, the minimum wage get on the property ladder so we do not have to spend our whole lives moving our families around insecure, substandard and overpriced rented accommodation? And, speaking of landlords, is anything going to be put in place to stop them charging extortionate amounts to rent out their aforementioned "properties"? You know, just so half the country don't spend their whole lives on housing benefit.
Grant: If I can answer the last point first, the current system of tenancies was introduced in order to encourage landlords to put their properties onto the rental market, by enabling them to charge market rents and regain possession when they needed it. If rents were capped, landlords may be reluctant to let their properties, leading to less accommodation being available for rent, which would not help landlords or tenants. There are, however, safeguards in place to protect tenants from excessive charges. If a tenant considers that their rent is significantly higher than the rents for comparable tenancies they can ask for the rent to be referred to the rent assessment committee for a determination, which becomes the maximum the landlord can charge.
In answer to your question about changes affecting current LA tenants, we have made a firm promise that current LA tenants will not be affected by proposed changes. In fact these changes are nothing whatsoever to do with existing tenants. And nor will they be in the future.
Income is not the only factor that an individual landlord will consider when deciding whether or not to reissue a tenancy, that decision will be based on the particular circumstances of the tenant. Central government is not setting a level of income above which you won't qualify for a social home - this is set at a local level.
I should mention that the new Affordable Rent that we're introducing is designed to provide far more flexibility over the homes available for different types of people on the social housing waiting list.
NotAnotherNewNappy: It's great to hear that you may indeed be sticking to the promises about your made about giving social housing tenants more of a stake in their homes in your pre election white paper and manifesto. Please can you direct me to where this part of your proposals are outlined in more detail? Since May I have been searching the internet for it almost daily, and can't find it. Many thanks again and good luck sleeping soundly in your bed at night when you have worked so hard to make normal families live in fear of losing the roof over their heads.
Grant: . I don't know what kind of scaremongering stories you've been hearing, but there's absolutely NO REASON for you to be concerned about losing the roof over your head. Why would you even say this? We're not making ANY changes to any existing tenures. So if you live in a social home of any kind then there's no change. What isn't fair is that the housing waiting lists have doubled over 13 years and all those people without a roof over their heads would be keeping you awake at night if you were the Housing Minister. That's the issue that keeps me awake and it's absolutely right to do something about it. So please don't listen to those who scaremonger, you've heard it direct. There is NO CHANGE to whatever your social housing arrangement happens to be. And there never will be under us. This is the document that you'll want to read
cheddacheese: I would like to ask about the current social housing allocation system in my area called Herts Choice Homes. I am on this waiting list and have been since 2004. My circumstances changed last year which means my priority date changed to November 2009 even though my circumstances became more urgent. I also feel that we have not been placed in the correct band. My aunt wrote to you in detail on the 14th October and your office confirmed receiving it on the 15th October. We still have not received a reply. Will your rethink include how people are prioritised on these lists?
Grant: The law currently provides that people with identified housing needs the homelessness, people in overcrowded housing get clear priority for social housing. Social housing costs the taxpayer a lot of money. So, I think it's right that it should be focused on those who need it most when they need it most. Having said that, there is scope within the law for councils to take into account factors other than housing need, such as whether people are in work or otherwise contributing to their community - and an increasing number of councils are changing their allocation schemes to provide for this. Under our changes to social housing allocations, councils will be able to operate a more focussed waiting list - which better reflects local circumstances and can be more easily understood by local people. It will also be easier for council to manage unrealistic expectations -by excluding from their waiting list people who have little or no prospect of ever getting social housing.
colditz: We need more social housing, not less, not more 'schemes', not new rules. We simply need more social housing.
We could start by turning all the buildings that have been unused for more than 5 years into social housing. We could continue by stopping this "part-rent part-buy" crap - NOBODY wants it, do you KNOW how hard it is to sell one of those? They are usually in HORRIBLE areas, and are horrifically overpriced. 'Half' of the price of the house is, realistically, about 3/4 of the price of the house in exchange for half the house. That's not fair, is it? A two-bed house round here goes for £120k, but 'half' is still about £75 grand - way more than half it's value. And once it's entirely bought - it's gone, isn't it? This country needs fewer home owners, not more.
Grant: Despite the public deficit, the Government is investing over £6.5 billion in housing, including over £2 billion to make existing social homes decent and nearly £4.5 billion to fund new affordable homes over the period 2011-15, which will deliver up to 150,000 new affordable homes. We are introducing a new delivery model for Affordable Housing. As part of this, participating housing associations will be able to let some of their properties at an affordable rent (which is up to 80% of market rent). This will secure greater value for money for the taxpayer, whilst still providing protection for the most vulnerable.
Worcswoman: Do you not think the recent cuts encourage an 'own nothing' benefits culture, given the near 50% reduction in housing benefit for homeowners (on benefits) when those who rent are much better off? They get their rent paid with at most a 20% reduction and also do not have to fund buildings insurance and maintenance costs? Why work? Why buy? Why try? My point is that the recent housing benefits changes discourage rather than encourage people to store assets in property. If you work and get made redundant you are better off selling your house and blowing the proceeds so that you get your rent paid, whatever the landlords charge, and your children do not go hungry. People who have worked and tried are persecuted more than someone who has never tried and never worked. Good changes? I don't think so. I would be most interested in your views.
Grant: Well I think you're certainly right that up until now people have found that when they work hard and play by the rules they're quite often penalised for having done the right thing. I don't agree that our housing benefit changes are likely to lead to an increase in this problem and there are certainly many other policies which are designed to make sure that work always pays. Our wider benefit reform package in particular.
Anyway, take your point and we'll carefully consider how best to ensure that doing the right thing always pays in the future.
earwicga: Lovely to see you have twins, I do too. My twins are eight now, and they will become homeless with me because of your government's housing and housing benefit policies.
Grant: You couldn't be further from the truth on this. Actually, I am committed to preventing and tackling homelessness. In fact, this is one of the main reasons why I became an MP in the first place! One of the first things I did when I became a Minister was to establish a cross-Government Ministerial Working Group on homelessness, and to ensure that we have an accurate picture of rough sleeping across the country by getting information from every local authority. As I mentioned above, I have also maintained levels of funding for homelessness services with investment of £400 million over 2011-15.
In relation to the changes to Housing Benefit, you are right that these are concerning many people. But it is important to point out that in 32% of cases, households will experience no shortfall in their rent, because they are currently receiving an excess. Around a third of properties in London and at least a third outside London will still be affordable on Local Housing Allowance rates, and families will continue to be able to claim rents of up to £21,000 a year. The Government is also making £190m of additional funding available to help local authorities to provide support where it is needed e.g. helping people to stay in their home or to move to cheaper accommodation. As a result, no-one should be left without a home owing to the changes we have announced.
packofcards: A lot of people are in fear of losing their homes. Yes you might not be changing existing tenures but there has been a cap on housing benefit which is the source of people worrying. Please do not laugh of our fears.
Grant: We don't think it's fair that working people should pay their taxes to ensure that others can live in the kind of homes that they themselves could not possibly afford. However, the changes we're making are pretty moderate. The maximum that will be paid under Housing Benefit will still be £21,000 per annum. How many people can afford a rent of £21k? Not many and that's AFTER we've made these changes. Obviously I don't know your exact situation, but I'd be happy to answer in more detail at email@example.com if you'd like to take me up on that.
granted: How do you intend to help those priced out of buying a house (as opposed to a tiny studio-flat) to house their families in? Or alternatively, when do you intend to improve security of tenure and rights for tenants so that they are at a comparative level to other European countries? I would like to hear you agree that it is unreasonable for children to be brought up in homes where they can be moved on the whim of a landlord every six months and where they are not allowed to decorate their rooms in any way, or have pets.
I would like to make it crystal clear that first time buyers do NOT want easy access to ridiculous multiples of their salaries to enable them to buy a house, or shared ownership, or rules to enable us to borrow enough to see us in debt we can never conceivably repay. We just want CHEAPER houses, and preferably more of them.
What policies does he have for building, or encouraging the building of, thousands (or even millions) of new homes, including new socially rented homes, to replace all those lost under Right-to-Buy? And can you confirm how many properties you personally own and if you're a buy-to-let landlord?
Grant: In answer to your question about how we will encourage building of new homes, we have secured a package that will help deliver the homes this country needs and are investing nearly £6.5 billion of taxpayers' money in housing over the Spending Review period (between 2011 and 2015). £2bn is to be invested in refurbishing and repairing social housing through the Decent Homes programme and almost £4.5 billion to fund new affordable homes to provide up to 150,000 homes to households who cannot afford to meet their own housing needs in the future.
We are giving housing associations much more flexibility on rents and use of assets, so our aspiration is to deliver as many as homes as possible through our investment and reforms. We need a more flexible system of affordable housing- offering stability when it's needed; helping people move for work; and protecting vulnerable households.
Housing associations will now have another option to offer households who only need support for a fixed period. We are calling it Affordable Rent. This new funding model will allow greater flexibility, focus state support on those in greatest need for as long as they need it and secure greater value for money for taxpayers. We will be publishing further details on affordable rent in early next year.
The only property I own is my own. I've never had a property that I've let or a second home.
ilovecrisps: Does this government share New Labour's desire to keep property prices at their current artificially inflated levels? If not, what changes in fiscal policy can we look forward to in order to bring about a much needed correction?
Grant: I think that one of the reasons why housing is in such a mess is that prices shot through the roof during a ten year period from 1997 to 2007. This left housing unaffordable in this country for too many people. We think that what's required is stable house prices. We will ensure that the top level financial scrutiny is in place to prevent banks from lending after they can no longer afford to do so - like Northern Rock did. Many other policies to ensure that more homes are built too. But I think your basic thought is right. You would now need to be 37 on average to buy a home in this country, unaided by parents, and that can't go on.
Jcee: I think encouraging people to get more involved in local government and having a say in where they live is great in principle, however in practice it throws up all sorts of issues. I'm not a councillor but I am a voluntary trustee of a local charity and whilst it is certainly one of the best things I've ever got involved in, it's hard work, can be unrewarding and tends to involve a lot of evening meetings and that can be extremely hard to manage with family and work commitments.
How are you going to encourage people to take that step to get involved and overcome these barriers?
Grant: Being a councillor is about more than attending meetings. Indeed the legislation only requires that a councillor attend one meeting every six months, recognising that a councillor can sort out problems over the telephone, through an email or through surgery with their local residents. A councillor should not be locked up in the town hall. They can be public-facing members of the community, but with a mandate to be an advocate for their community. Councillors can arrange surgeries, deal with local residents or speak to council officers at times to fit in with their family or work commitments.
You don't need any formal qualifications to be a councillor, but the skills and experiences you have picked up in your everyday life or your career will help. Many people already have the skills required to be a councillor, like being a good communicator, working with others, analysing a problem and suggesting solutions, organisational skills and working with their community.
madamimadam: As part of a consultation survey, we've been asked to identify services that we'd like to volunteer for in Surrey's consultation survey. Is this also planned as part of the Localisation Bill? That we step in and run services that you cut? If you do expect people to volunteer as carers in homes, run education services etc, who will pay for the CRB checks? And, as I am unqualified for such a role, who will pay for my training? Or will you take anyone who's keen and has the time, no questions asked?
And what then of the people who have the skills to do these jobs but inconveniently also need to be paid for them? Aren't you actually asking the public to cover the jobs of public service workers for free? That's not a Big Society to me, it's a Sub-Third World one.
Grant: It definitely isn't the case of replacing paid people with volunteers. It is though a question of how we think about society. Do we think that the ONLY people with a duty to look after others are employed by the state? No of course not. We live in neighbourhoods and it is right that people should be able to look to their community to help out.
That's how all kinds of services from running the local scout group to the local museum operate and there's every reason to expand this concept further. If people had more power and control over what goes on in their communities then this would help a lot. And that's exactly the kind of power that we're about to provide through our localism bill. More power to people to help make sure that change is in your hands.
Jcee: How will you ensure that those getting involved have the necessary experience to do the job and will truly represent the communities they will be serving?
Grant: Of course, you're right to point out that there are no qualifications for being a councillor or by the way an MP, or even a Minister.
However there is one hurdle that you have to climb which is to get elected. Once elected most people do take that responsibility seriously and I don't think there's much evidence that power-crazed individuals are running around destroying their communities. Of course if this did start to happen then they would doubtless be booted out at the next election!
policywonk: The principle of 'localism' is great in theory - motherhood and apple pie. Everyone wants to see people getting more involved in local politics, and local councils being more responsive to their electorates. But given that the Coalition is busily removing all ringfences and cutting local authority funds (except those to the richest councils, which are being increased), aren't you just - to quote Polly Toynbee - devolving the axe? If you really believed in localism, wouldn't you allow local councils more revenue-raising powers?
Grant: We're not devolving the axe, we're devolving the right tools for councillors and councils to get on with the job of successfully running their local authority. There's no getting around the fact that public finances are under pressure, but we want councils to cut waste, inefficiency and red tape, not services.
SimonGBRefurb: With your coming changes to the way planning is judged (rural shift to referendum-based decision making) do you anticipate an increase in new homes in the green belt?
Grant: We won't be deleting the green belt from here in Whitehall any more. We think that this was the wrong approach and, unsurprisingly, got people very annoyed. Instead we're going to leave these matters in local hands and in rural areas people will be able to make their own decisions about whether a few more homes in their own village would be a better use of space. They'll have to have a referendum about it and can only go ahead if they secure the support of other villagers. Also the developments will be small scale in nature.
There's a really useful Q&A on this policy right here, the Q&A on Community Right to Build.
longfingernails: Can you please make squatting a criminal offence in England, coming with the possibility of a long prison sentence, and for foreign squatters, automatic deportation? Can you also make it straightforward to evict squatters, and until we have directly elected police commissioners, liaise with Theresa May and Eric Pickles to move squatter removal up the police priority list?
Grant: On 8 November, I published an online guide for home owners affected by squatters. This sets out homeowners rights and the action they can take. We are also taking steps to help get empty homes back into productive and lawful use, thus reducing the scope for squatting. In view of public concerns, we are reviewing the options for strengthening the law in relation to squatting and the way in which it is enforced. We hope to conclude this work early next year.
snowmash: The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate that there is a shortfall of 300 000 wheelchair accessible homes in the UK (social housing or not). I know of many wheelchair users who have been 'rehomed' into nursing homes or residential homes, due to lack of social housing (and otherwise accessible housing). Do you feel this is appropriate in this day and age, and if not what does your government plan to do about it?
Grant: From my experience each case is different and what's appropriate in one situation isn't in another. There is a Disabled Facilities Grant (DFG) which is administered by local housing authorities. It helps to fund a wide range of home adaptations, for instance, grab rails, walk-in showers, stair lifts and, if appropriate, extensions or conversion of existing property. Following the Spending Review, the DFG is being increased from £169m in 2010-11 to £185m in 2014-15.
domesticslattern: The papers report that you are a millionaire with your own plane.
You report to a Cabinet in which 23 out of 29 members are reported to have assets and investments estimated to be worth more than £1million. Genuinely, is it difficult for you and - not wanting to single you out in particular - others in your Party, to understand the realities of life for people at the other end of the income scale? In particular I mean life in, or waiting for, social housing?
Grant: Don't believe everything you read in the papers. My family and I fell about the floor laughing when we read that I was a multi-millionaire in the weekend paper. If only. Sadly not even a millionaire I'm afraid. I take your point that it is difficult to represent everyone through one party but I am also trying to encourage all sorts of people, who represent all walks of life to consider becoming a politician. If people care deeply about something they need to be given a voice, one way to do this is to become involved in local politics.
Jaybird37: Is this the kind of behaviour which you would make criminal? If not, given that the current government are abolishing standards boards, and the Conservative party believe that control over local representatives should be through local parties, what are local people supposed to do?
Grant: I can't comment on individual cases. The Standards Board regime unfortunately developed into a vehicle for vexatious complaints that wasted councillors' time and the council's resources. We're scrapping it, but we remain serious about conduct, that's why we are making it a criminal offence to misuse public office ie if a councillor lies about or conceals a personal interest with the intention of putting their own interests before those of the public.
Hullygully: Tories: they don't care and the poor don't count.
Grant: That's complete nonsense and untrue. What everyone else has realised is that unless you tackle the problems of a huge deficit which costs £42bn a year just to service the interest, then it is the poor who suffer the most. So the steps we're taking are to help the most vulnerable. Failing to tackle these problems is precisely what hurts the poorest in society.